How I Teach

This Colorado teacher doesn’t come to class with ironclad lessons. Instead, students help her plan along the way.

Teacher Denise Perritt (far left) poses with her high school English students and a guest speaker who visited her class, author Robert Fulghum.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Denise Perritt, a reading specialist and high school English teacher at the tiny Paradox Valley School in the western Colorado town of Paradox, knew she wanted to teach as an elementary school student. The inspiration? Her fifth-grade teacher, who showed her the joy in teaching.

Perritt, who also serves as vice principal of the charter school, talked to Chalkbeat about her former teacher’s special qualities, the importance of parent feedback and why she likes it when students laugh in class.

Perritt is one of 20 educators who were selected for the state’s new Commissioners Teacher Cabinet. The group will provide input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education on the impact of education policies in the classroom.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
I was inspired by my fifth-grade teacher, Miss Johnson. She led her classroom with compassion, which caused me to believe I could teach. Miss Johnson genuinely cared about our learning, but she also cared about us as students. I learned from my previous teachers in grades K-4, but they were all about the learning and not so much about personally getting to know their students.

I really noticed and liked this teaching style. Further, Miss Johnson’s class was fun and we helped each other learn so everyone was successful, which felt good. I was not just responsible for my own learning, but also for the success of my friends and classmates. So, I guess this is when I first experienced the joy of teaching and became hooked.

What does your classroom look like?
I teach in multiple spaces within our school (sometimes even having to move in the middle of a lesson when the conference room is needed for a meeting). My class spaces are small resource rooms in which I try to create learning energy we can take with us (because my class spaces are fluid, but also as inspiration for students to make learning fun for themselves). I believe learning is a state of mind and does not always have to be connected to a particular place. Although environment does inspire learning, we can create a fun place to learn anywhere if we have the desire to learn within us.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my________?
My heart. My desire to teach started in my heart when my fifth grade teacher’s compassion for her students and teaching stirred my soul and started me thinking about teaching. There is definitely an art and science to teaching. I believe students learn more —and there is plenty of research to support my belief — when they know teachers sincerely care about them. (Not just about what they are learning, but also about the joy in their lives.)

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?
Honestly, I do not have a favorite lesson. I engage students in my planning (i.e. we decide together which novels we will read and what we will write about) so learning is fun and meaningful for all of us. My students often come up with better lesson ideas than I would.

As we progress through lessons, we include things along the way. For example, one group of readers chose the novel “Hoot” by Carl Hiaasen. The story is about burrowing owls and saving them from having their habitat destroyed. Just yesterday, I received a call from my principal, Jon, who is on vacation and just happened to photograph a mother burrowing owl feeding her babies. We discussed him sharing his photos with our students upon our return to school. Now, if I read this novel with another group of students, I have this additional resource to draw upon. Jon is a wonderful photographer so I also may have him share a bit about how he became interested in photography (sort of a career/mentor teachable moment). So, you can see how things just fall naturally into place, if you are open and flexible with lesson-planning.

Thus, I do not have a favorite lesson because my lessons are not plans, but scaffolds upon which to build student knowledge. The structure supports and allows lots of room for new thoughts and ideas, which allow broader and deeper connections to be made, even if they are months later (as in the case of the owl photos).

How do you respond when students don’t understand your lesson?
I usually ask the students to tell me what they are thinking. Then I can learn how I can add to their thinking to help them get to the expected level of understanding.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
I usually tell a joke related to the topic to get them all thinking about the same thing and laughing. Then I have their attention and we are back on topic.

I use laughter in class for many reasons. It decreases stress hormones and increases immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies, thus helping to keep all of us well and in school. Iit triggers the release of endorphins, which promote an overall sense of well-being and can even temporarily relieve pain. Also, it promotes a general feeling of fun while learning. I have had teachers say to me, “When I passed your class, I heard a lot of laughing. It sounded like all of you were having fun.”

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
Teaching in a small school — total enrollment is 75 in preschool through 12th grade — makes it easy to know all students. I am also the vice principal of the school and stand at the front door each morning to greet each student. I do this for many reasons, but mostly because I like to and it gives me an overall feeling about how each student’s morning has been thus far. Most students have about an hour ride on the bus to get to school; and, since we have one bus, our entire student body comes in at once. Having preschool through 12th grade students together on one bus sometimes causes problems, so I like to nip them early in the day.

I have been at Paradox Valley School two years and have built relationships with students by: Listening (I ask questions to be sure I understand what they are sharing with me); helping; and, being firm (keeping expectations high) and fair. I think the students respect these qualities and I encourage them to do the same as they interact with one another. Our students are truly amazing young people and the foundation of my relationships with them is based upon mutual respect and learning. I learn from them as much as, I hope, they learn from me.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach?
One of the most memorable occurred early in my career and has stuck with me for decades. I was teaching first grade and had a student who was reading significantly below grade level. Diagnostic testing confirmed she needed more time to learn to read. Unfortunately, given the structure of the school in which I was teaching, this meant repeating first grade. Her parents did not agree with the decision so we compromised. I agreed to read with her over the summer and continue to do my best to get her ready for second grade. They agreed, if she was not ready, she would repeat, which is what happened.

I stayed at that school one more year and then transferred to another district, but continued to live in the same community. Years later, her mother sought me out to let me know her daughter was doing well and repeating first grade was the right decision. I was moved that she reached out to let me know. During the span of time between her daughter repeating and seeing her again, I had my own daughter, which also changed my perspective. In my new role as a parent, I tried to let Anna’s teachers and mentors know — from pre-K through college — how much their hard work was appreciated.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
“The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World” by Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama

What’s the best advice you ever received?

One piece of advice I have used often was shared with me by a professor, Dr. Robert Hanny, while I was studying at The College of William and Mary in Virginia. I was struggling to narrow my research for my dissertation, and he said, “Denise, you do not have to build the wall, you only have to add a brick. Add your brick [research] on top of someone else’s brick, which is already laid; and, design your brick so another can be put on yours by someone, who comes along after you.”

This is true for so much of what we do as educators. We teach our students for a limited time and then they go to another teacher. We cannot teach them all they need to know. We can add to what the child knows already, teach as much as possible in the time we have, and know they will continue learning after they leave our classroom.

How I Teach

Why students’ birthdays are the perfect icebreaker for this award-winning Tennessee teacher

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Paula Franklin gets a hug from one of her students after the announcement that she was one of two Tennessee teachers to win a Milken Educator Award.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Paula Franklin’s students describe her teaching style as “relaxingly engaging.”

Maybe that’s because she starts out by building relationships with her students, then begins to introduce the content in her Advanced Placement government class at West High School in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Since she took on the course, enrollment has doubled. And more than 80 percent of her students exceed the national average on their final AP test scores.

Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Franklin was one of two Tennessee teachers chosen by the Milken Family Foundation for their prestigious national teaching award. The honor includes a no-strings-attached check for $25,000.

We spoke with Franklin about why she became a teacher, how she uses birthdays to build relationships with her students, and why campaign finance reform is her favorite lesson to teach. (Her answers have been lightly edited for clarity.).

Why did you become a teacher?

My high school AP Biology teacher, Mr. Wheatley, was my inspiration. He cared about his students as people first and whatever we learned about biology was secondary. As a result, I learned a lot of biology, and a tremendous amount about myself, for which I am forever grateful. I work every day to provide the same type of environment to my students. I try to teach them about themselves through the lens of civic education. I want my students to leave my class not only more confident in their knowledge of our government, but also as inquirers and risk-takers who are equipped to ask questions and find the answers.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them?

I spend the first two to three days of class using Kagan class-building strategies to get to know my students and to get them to know each other. I can always make up time for content later, but the time spent building a classroom culture at the beginning of the year can’t be made up.

Another of my favorite things is finding out my students’ birthdays to celebrate them with the class by asking them three questions: Are you going to drive? What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment,? What do you hope to accomplish before your next birthday?

This allows me to spotlight my students and have them think critically about themselves and their goals. I have asked these same three questions for years, and students have started coming to me on their birthdays after they have left my class to share their accomplishments and goals.

What does your classroom look like?

I love to display student work in my classroom, both from my current and former students, so my walls are pretty well covered in posters and art. I think it’s important to make a classroom into a reflection of the students who learn there and goes a long way toward building community.  I arrange the desks in small sections of rows so that I can easily get to all the students to provide support on a difficult concept or assignment or encouragement to stay on task.

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my __________. Why?

PHOTO: Milken Family Foundation
Lowell Milken, chairman and co-founder of the Milken Family Foundation, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen surprise Franklin with her award.

Google Drive! I am a huge reflector and save all of my lesson materials and reflections on my Drive. That way, I can easily access previous lessons and see how to best adapt them for my current students or the current social-political climate.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach? How did you come up with the idea?

One of my favorite lessons to teach began as my absolute least favorite: Campaign finance reform. The first couple of years, it went terribly. Students didn’t come away with an understanding of campaign finance but were more confused than when we started.

I am big on incorporating technology in my classroom, but for this lesson, I have them write down the original limitations of campaign finance and then cross them off in a different color as we learn about repeals. The action of crossing an item off of the list and annotating with the case or law that repealed it really sticks with them. This lesson is one of my favorites because I get to teach a relatively small amount of content over a class period, students get to work in groups and really wrestle with the content, and they have the opportunity to share their understanding with the whole class.

How do you respond when a student doesn’t understand your lesson?

I try to figure out what it was about the lesson they did not understand. I can usually do this by reviewing data from a quiz or test or other assessment or just by asking them. I spend a lot of time in my class focusing on how to ask and answer questions to encourage my students to be advocates for their education both in and out of my classroom. After I figure out what I need to remediate with my classes, I do my best to come up with an example or analogy that is relevant to them. If that doesn’t work, then I ask a colleague how they teach that topic and try that. I am constantly looking for new and different ways to teach content that my students typically struggle with so that I am prepared to switch it up if my plan isn’t working.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It is OK to leave it on your desk; it will still be there in the morning. You are not a bad teacher for needing time for yourself.

How I Teach

Crazy contraptions, Chemistry Cat, and climbing stories: How this Colorado science teacher connects with kids

PHOTO: Courtesy of Shannon Wachowski
Shannon Wachowski, a science teacher at Platte Valley High School, holds a toothpick bridge as a her students look on.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Shannon Wachowski once started a parent-teacher conference by sharing that she was concerned about the student’s lack of motivation. The boy’s mother quickly began adding criticisms of her own — alarming Wachowski enough that she started defending the teen.

It was then the student’s behavior began to make more sense to Wachowski, who teaches everything from ninth-grade earth science to college-level chemistry at Platte Valley High School in northeastern Colorado. She realized that school, not home, was the boy’s safe place.

Wachowski is one of 20 educators who were selected to serve on the state Commissioner’s Teacher Cabinet. The group provides input to officials at the Colorado Department of Education.

She talked to Chalkbeat about how she uses parent conferences and classwork to learn students’ stories, why making Rube Goldberg contraptions boosts kids’ confidence, and what happens when she raises her hand in the middle of class.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?
Originally a practicing chemical engineer, I became a teacher because I wanted a more fulfilling career. I had tutored chemistry in college and really enjoyed it.

What does your classroom look like?
Because my students work in teams 90 percent of the time, my tables are arranged so that students can sit in groups of four. I wrote a grant last summer for standing desks so each two person desk raises up and down. They are convenient for labs or when students need a change of scenery. My walls contain student-made license plates (an activity I do on the first day of school) and other student work from class, including various Chemistry Cat memes!

Fill in the blank. I couldn’t teach without my ________. Why?
My heart. Initially I became a teacher because I loved my content. I soon realized however, that while content is important, developing relationships with students is paramount. No learning will happen if positive relationships are not established first. When I am frustrated with student behavior, I try to put myself in their place and respond in a caring and compassionate manner.

What is one of your favorite lessons to teach?
One of my favorite lessons is when my students build Rube Goldberg devices. It gets somewhat chaotic because they are working in teams and materials are everywhere, but every single student is engaged. In the end, they can apply what they know about energy to design a multi-step contraption. I have seen very low-confidence students excel at this activity, and it is very rewarding to see them experience success in a science class.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?
One strategy I’ve recently started using came from my experience leading professional development for other teachers. I will be somewhere in the middle of the room (usually not the front) and raise my hand. When students see me raise my hand, they will raise theirs and pause their conversation. Then other students see those students and raise their hand, etc. Once everyone is quiet, then I’ll make my announcement. Like all other strategies, I need to practice being consistent with it.

How do you get to know your students and build relationships with them? What questions do you ask or what actions do you take?
I always plan the first couple of days for “get to know you” activities. My students design their own paper license plates using whatever letters, numbers, or design they would like. They then have 30 seconds to talk about their license plates.
I noticed that in some of my more challenging classes I needed a way to better connect with my students. At the beginning of most class periods I share some sort of funny story about what happened to me the evening prior — for some reason, I am never short of these stories — or a picture of my dog, or my latest climbing adventure. Sharing this information does not take long and eventually, students will ask if I have a story to share if I haven’t done so in a while. This also leads to them sharing stories with me, and finding that we may have more in common than we think.

Tell us about a memorable time-good or bad-when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At parent-teacher conferences one year I had a parent come in with their student. This student was not the most motivated individual — not disrespectful, just did not seem to want to do anything with his time. As I was explaining this to his parent, the parent started talking very negatively to and about the student, so much so that I found myself trying to defend the student and bring up positive qualities about his character. This interaction helped me to understand some of the student’s behavior in class, as well as realize that for some students, school is their safe place. There are often lots of reasons for a student’s behavior that I may not be aware of, which is why it is important to get to know each student and their situation as best as possible.

What are you reading for enjoyment?
When I have time outside of school, one of the things I enjoy doing is throwing pottery. I am currently reading “Science for Potters” by Linda Bloomfield. It combines my love of science and art into one book.

What is the best advice you ever received?
Since I teach a variety of levels, I often have one class that challenges my classroom management skills. This can be frustrating as I am the type of person that would like to achieve perfection in every circumstance. When I have a discipline issue in my class, I often see it as a personal failure. My husband often reminds me that “You can’t control other people’s behavior, you can only control your response to it.”